When parents are going through a divorce things can get heated very easily. The simplest things can become very complex when parents disagree on issues. Often the only recourse is to get a legal agreement that spells out how custody is shared. This will involve a mediator, frequently appointed by the courts, if parents can’t work it out between them. Parents often ask me how to help their children adjust to the transition between two homes. This is a difficult answer to give as circumstances vary depending on the age of the child, distance between homes, parents work schedules, living arrangements and special needs of the child. Here are some general ideas, gathered about the net, that might prove helpful.
My best advice is that parents keep the child in mind first and foremost. What is in the best interest of the child?
Emotional Preparations for Transitions:
• Hold young children and give them physical comfort, hugs and reassurance. Most young children naturally seek the comfort that comes from being held or hugged. Give children extra hugs, smiles and hand-holding. Set aside time to sit together, put your arm around them or hold them and talk about their feelings.
• Give verbal reassurance to young children. Tell them often that you love them, that everything will work out and that you will not leave. Also, listen and allow them to share thoughts or feelings and help them realize that feeling scared or upset is OK and can be worked out.
• Provide children with security through maintaining some consistent routines that are familiar to them (build on existing routines or establish new ones). This might mean consistent routines at lunch time, during an exchange or at bedtime. It might involve reading stories each night (whether with either parent), playing a game or having the same child-care provider. Keep a child’s routines as similar as possible, which helps build security.
• Discuss upcoming changes or schedules before they occur and show young children in concrete ways what will happen. Make a calendar with X’s on days with mom and O’s on days with dad so they can see what will happen, or do a paper chain to show how many days until they see the other parent. Young children struggle more if they are uncertain of what will happen next.
• Read books or watch shows that involve dealing with divorce or related issues together. Buy, check out or borrow books or movies that show children or families dealing with divorce and its effects (make sure they are age appropriate). Ask children what they think about the story or characters and how they respond. Compare your own situation.
• Give young children tangible items to provide them security. Let them have a picture of the other parent in their bedroom, a stuffed animal they take with them between locations or other concrete items that help them. Young children need to have things of their own that they do not “lose” every time they go with another parent.
Don’t talk down about the child’s other parent, no matter how frustrated or angry you become. Talking down about a child’s parent is like talking down about part of your own child. Establish a special routine during transition periods. Perhaps play a game or serve a special meal each time your child returns. Kids thrive on routine and if they know exactly what to expect when they return to you it will make the transition easier. Allow your child to have a transition object. If your child needs a blanket or teddy bear, let them. If the child is older and maybe doesn’t want to carry an item that large, help them make one. Maybe pick out some rocks that represent each parent. Have fun designing them so they know which rock belongs to whom. Call your child every day. You would be surprised at how much hearing your voice and knowing that you are thinking about them means to them, even if they don’t say much in return. Be understanding of their missing things from their other home, including the other parent. All of those things are very real to your child and not having them when they want them can be very frustrating. Work with the other parent to establish a few basic routines that are at both houses. For example, at both houses bedtimes should be very similar. Sitting at the dinner table may be something to be encouraged at both houses. Television viewing or video game playing habits could be similar in both homes. Establish some routine for going back to the other parent’s house. Maybe develop a checklist.
Did you remember your bear, your homework, your library book, your gym shoes etc? Make sure you do this each and every time so it becomes habit. Fewer things will be forgotten leading to less frustration and more responsibility. Develop firm procedures and rules about what is acceptable about forgetting things at the other parent’s house. Are you going to ground your child because he forgot his teddy bear? Will you be driving over to your ex’s house to get it at 9:00 at night because your 4 year-old just can’t sleep without it? Are you willing to let your child get a failing grade because your ex doesn’t follow a checklist and make sure your 5th grader had packed her month-long book report assignment? Make procedures and follow through. If it is possible, keep the communications open with your ex. You won’t always agree, but if you are at least communicating you both will always be in the know. If you are able to keep the communication lines open, make sure your kids know this. Have family meetings. Present yourselves as a united front even though you live apart. Back each other up. By doing this you will prevent your kids from trying to play you off each other.